Ungrounded

By Sarah Little

This town has become a skin that has shrunk, becoming too small for my body. 

The apartment around me is tedious, the people have become shadows enshrouded in averageness. I’m not home.

I can’t breathe, sometimes. 

Sometimes I dream of old buildings full of character and history; old townhouses and shiny-new apartments still so new that they need every window opened to air out the smell of paint. I always wake at 3 a.m., perfectly able to envision the place and even more able to envision myself there.

It’s never difficult to begin selling things, fishing out my passport and buying the cheapest one-way I can find. The itch has settled in deeply, is wound closely through my skeleton. 

Time to go.

I’m awake just long enough for safety drills and announcements – the sleeping pill I took, timed to let me sleep shortly after the announcements finished, and the journey passes before I’m aware of it.

In the airport, I feel relief that I’m uncomfortable. I don’t speak the language; I wasn’t raised here. I don’t belong here and it’s a relief to have a reason to feel that way, to have a solid reason for not feeling like I’m at home.

I didn’t bring a camera and the memory on my phone fills up. When it’s protesting that storage is almost full, I clear space, move on. There’s never time to settle, just a rush of airports and trains and buses and transfers. I’m never home now.

I look for the apartments in my dreams: the ones I’ve seen where curtains hang heavy in the window, where I buy furnishings cheap off locals who are updating their own homes and create a home out of nothing.

So far I have nothing down pat.

“You should call home,” says a girl at my latest job, we’re having coffee and talking about nothing. I don’t tell her my patchwork history of jobs and residences – she doesn’t tell me the tiny details that I hear her gossiping about with our other colleagues.

I forget her name – I forget most of them, really, but she’s not wrong. I haven’t put roots down, too busy searching for the right place. I’ve managed to collect connections between people in every city and town. Attachments are one thing; bringing a piece of a place with me is another. There’s nothing holding me back anymore, nothing grounding me. This girl looks like she phones home every week and has had one ankle in the earth for years, already entrenching her roots and calling herself a local.

The coffee is different. I swirl it in the cup, breathe in the aroma. Even when I doctor it, it tastes wrong. Once, I would sit in cafes drinking coffee and feel slightly at home: this piece of home is gone.

“Time differences, you know,” I say after a minute. It’s clear that she’s angling for a response, but her eyes, when she looks at me, are blank. She doesn’t know, of course, she doesn’t know, because her calling home means the convenience of calling someone three suburbs over, not three countries over.

It’s easier, in the end, to pick up and move on instead of trying to find home where it isn’t. 

The apartment dream persists, more detailed every time. I keep a notepad and pen by the bed, flipping on the lamp to draw in the latest room for reference. Within a year, there’s a dozen or so different pages outlined with rooms, furniture, decorations. Some of them look like the ones I’ve already lived in, others look like furniture shops.

I stay at my seventh job long enough to save for a train ticket, looking for a new apartment in the eleventh city. Nostalgia brushes over me and I spend an hour in the nearest internet café studying social media. It’s been fourteen months, I don’t recognize the people who are my friends. I can’t pick out their voices in their written words any longer. 

Several come home messages. It’s not hard to notice that the majority of the messages came immediately after leaving; they’ve tapered off now, everyone else going about their regularly scheduled lives and forgetting, day by day. I update city and employment, log off without writing them back. 

I go out, find a restaurant for dinner. It’s become habit to do this, and if the restaurant is good it’ll become my default for all the nights I’m not able to cook dinner. If nothing else, it’s at least sociable to venture outdoors every so often.

“Where are you from?” asks the server. 

“Oh… well, all over, really,” I come up with at last. She doesn’t look satisfied, but the take-out box she hands me has a sticker with her name and number on it. That’s certainly new. 

I call her the next morning, some haze of jetlag and pre-coffee, leave a scattered voicemail and am tempted to leave a better message. Before I get the chance she’s already called back. 

She convinces me going out to dinner will be fun, but fun isn’t the word that comes to mind as I’m rifling through my wardrobe trying to scare up something respectable. Nothing looks right, so I decide I may as well stand out. 

When we meet she looks over me, approving, and the restaurant is romance come to life. None of this feels like home, but the apartment is the closest I have been able to find the one I’ve got in a sketchbook hidden under the mattress. 

I feel almost like I have a place here now.

“So when you say you’re from all over, what do you mean?” her eyes are alight with interest and I pull my gaze from hers, study the melting ice in my glass with what feels like the same amount of interest.

“Not much, really. I travel, I don’t really have a set home nowadays.” Please let that be enough to close the subject. No more questions, please.

“Okay… so you travel because you don’t have a home?” she’s probing further than I expect. Anyone else who has tried this line of questioning gave it up after they didn’t get the answers they were looking for. 

“More like I don’t have a home because I travel.” 

This city slowly becomes home. She travels with me on a whim, sometimes, and if I’m gone long enough she sends small parcels, writes so you don’t forget to come home and never mentions them when I come back. 

It almost feels like home, but I’m too comfortable now, set in routines, to be able to say for sure if it’s home or just fondness created from familiarity. It’s been eight months, the longest I’ve stayed anywhere, but the apartment’s still an empty living space. There’s no jacket over the back of a chair, no scent of perfume and home baking. I’ve been travelling for two years and the apartment still feels like home – it just isn’t, in several ways I can’t quite define.

I think it’s time to get going again.

This time I leave in the middle of the night, catch a late-night bus and a midnight train. This time I find a townhouse with only the barest of necessities. 

I’m almost finished unpacking my two suitcases when I fail to come across my sketchbook. Panicked now, I ruffle through the rest of my belongings, tear through the already-unpacked things in an effort to find it. It’s not here. 

I’ve left whatever remained of a dream home in another city. 

Sunrise happens as I’m hooking cotton-candy curtains and wandering rooms making lists. For once I’m not thinking in terms of making somewhere comfortable. It’s the first I can think of this happening and it’s the first time I can remember making my own modifications on my new dwelling – it feels like I’ve left a little print of myself on the house as I curl into the window-seat at the back of my new bedroom.

This time I feel like I belong here and maybe it doesn’t matter if I left my template behind. As I’m making pasta, there’s a knock at the door: she’s found me. She’s holding my sketchbook, which looks worse for wear after being stuck under a bed. The cover is faded, the edges worn-in. Comfortable, is the word that springs to mind as I look at it.

I don’t have a frame of reference of how you’re supposed to act when your ex shows up at your door in another country, but she comes in anyway. It’s like she belongs here, the way she kicks off her shoes and runs a hand over the mantelpiece, picks up the figurines along the edge of it and opens the book on the living-room table. 

“You didn’t come home like you normally do,” she says. There’s no accusation in her voice, just sadness. 

I don’t have an answer. It’s why I never could write back when others emailed, imploring me to come home, why I couldn’t bring myself to book a ticket to my hometown. It’s why I have a coin jar tucked into the top drawer of my bedside table with half a dozen mixed-up currencies, stashed away in case I ever need to make a call. 

We move to the dining room, eat silently until she gets up and hooks up her music to my speakers. This alone tells me she already feels at home here, she knows how I like my living spaces. It feels familiar and relaxing this time, I’m not mapping out how long before I pack my meagre belongings and run off into the night. Her words sink in, like you usually do. 

For her, or maybe with her, I had a routine; she thinks of my trips as a piece of the story that unfolded when we were together.

It was why I left: I was getting complacent, sure that eventually she wouldn’t want to stay with me while I scrabbled to find a place to call home. 

She drags her bags in from the porch while I make up the spare room, unpacks clothes into the wardrobe and dumps other things into the bedside unit. The entire house is bare. We go furniture shopping and as the delivery men unload the antique armoire, she opens the relevant sketch and studies it, directs them exactly where to place it. Once it’s in place, it looks just like the sketch. She looks like she fits perfectly and it’s breathtaking to see, already at home in the way she moves, knows where to find the shopping list and what needs to be fixed.

Something clicks into place, seeing this first piece of furniture I’ve bought in the townhouse I used to spend so many nights dreaming about. It feels like coming home – sitting with her, having a hastily-constructed dinner feels like being home after years of searching.

“I get it,” she says, blank photo album on her lap. “You’ve been chasing home, haven’t you? It’s why you never called?”

She’s right. I have a coin jar hidden away with half a dozen currencies for payphones, a card holder with countless scraps of papers, names and numbers and countries tucked away to trace my journey with people instead of places. Sometimes I’d take a handful of the coins with me to a phone in the middle of the night, puzzle out the right change to put in. Some of these nights I would slip the first coin in, then cancel it and wait for the coin to drop into the change section.

(I never knew which number I was supposed to be calling.)

Sarah is a poet-storyteller. When she isn’t conjuring new tales or adding to her to-create list she blogs, knits (or crochets), and sometimes goes looking for shenanigans. Her work has appeared in Minute Magazine, Bye Bye Nite, and L’Éphémère Review, among others. She self-published her second poetry chapbook, Not Your Masterpiece, in January 2018.

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